The idea that a cartoonist should be answerable to a government body for making a political point is yet another low in the use of Section 18C of Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act. 18C makes it unlawful to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate’ on the basis of race or ethnicity. It’s under 18C that columnist Andrew Bolt has had two articles banned, and a group of Queensland University students is now facing court for questioning the decision to provide a separate computer lab for indigenous students.
Now Bill Leak, an Australian cartoonist, is in the firing line for a cartoon depicting the importance of parental responsibility in indigenous communities. Leak is being investigated by Australia’s so-called Human Rights Commission. The cartoon in question depicts an indigenous police officer, presenting a child to his father. He says: ‘You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.’ The indigenous parent responds: ‘Yeah righto, what’s his name then?’ The notion that parents in indigenous communities must take more responsibility for their children is not particularly controversial – it’s a point often made by indigenous leaders such as Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine. Mundine, who is also a former national president in the Australian Labor Party, has defended Leak. ‘If the allegations are that [Leak] has incited racial hatred, I don’t support that at all’, Mundine said. ‘[The cartoon] has a black police officer and it’s opening up a debate. Cartoonists have always been in-your-face – and that’s definitely in-your-face.’
However, extraordinarily, the complaint against Leak was encouraged by the commission’s race-discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, which will most likely prejudice the commission’s investigation. A government entity has effectively told people to be offended and will accordingly be investigating. Yes, Leak’s cartoons are often offensive. That’s what a good cartoonist does. They highlight topics of debate through confronting, hard-hitting and pointed imagery. If you fall foul of their pen, it can be tough. Leak recently portrayed same-sex-marriage activists as the ‘WAFFEN-SSM’, made light of domestic-violence leave, and poked fun at fat, bald and transgender people to highlight the importance of freedom of speech. And that’s the key thing here: the freedom of Leak and others to draw and say anything they like.